Most policy-relevant debate about U.S. national security focuses on strategy. Other important discussion centers on getting the right people in the right offices at the right times. The assumption behind all such debate, some of it very sophisticated, is that if we have the right concepts and experienced, competent people to implement them, the organizational structure of government becomes, if not entirely irrelevant, then certainly a less significant factor in foreign policy outcomes. The bias of experienced Washington insiders is clear: Good ideas and good people can overcome a creaky organizational structure, but even the best structure will fail if we lack good ideas and good people.
That may have been true in the past (or not). But it is true no longer. The higher organization of U.S. national security is broken. (By “higher organization” I mean the integration of the senior echelons of critical Executive Branch departments: State, Defense, the National Intelligence Directorate, Homeland Security, Treasury and Justice, to name the most obviously significant.) The National Security Council system and the interagency process we currently use do not function effectively—as has been manifest throughout the presidency of George W. Bush—not because (or not just because) of a deficiency of strategic acumen and experienced policymakers. The system itself is inadequate to the world as we find it. The old Washington insider bias needs to be turned on its head: The higher organization of national security is so dysfunctional that it almost doesn’t matter what strategies we select or how individually brilliant our policymakers are; they will fail.
The costs of structural dysfunction will get worse, too, because both problems and opportunities in the global environment are becoming increasingly diverse and multidimensional. Handling a nuclear Iran and fighting terrorists, rescuing Darfur and rebuilding failed states, managing the entry of new powers into the international order and protecting against the meltdown of the international financial system—all of these new challenges demand integrated approaches the current system cannot deliver, designed as it was for a Cold War world that no longer exists.
This argument is not entirely new. After the Cold War several observers reasoned that a new environment called for a new strategy. As National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice noted that, while the first national security decision memorandum of the George H.W. Bush Administration went out to 14 government departments and agencies, George W. Bush’s first went out to 41. The Hart-Rudman Commission (1999–2001) had precisely such a task as its mandate, and by most measures it did a good job. It called for: a homeland security department (though not the one we got) to rationalize domestic preparedness; major reform of the Executive Branch’s strategy and budget processes;...